Jon Huntsman Jr. seemed to be the perfect candidate. He certainly looked the part—imperially slim, impeccably attired, immaculately coiffed and unfailingly well-groomed. He had a certain debonair ease about him, very unlike the prognathic belligerence of his distant cousin and fellow holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood, the testosteronally supercharged Mit Romney. Jonny exuded an androgynous refinement. Jonny was F. Scott Fitzgerald to Mit’s Ernest Hemingway. Change the scene, and you can picture him as elegant toff bantering with an ingénue named Hermione in some Edwardian drawing-room comedy.
Jonny had his brief moment in the sun, but he was unable to seize the day. It was all laid out for him: the flattering cover stories, the deferential network interviews, the relics of the Grand Old Party desperately searching for someone to save them from the Tea Party loons. But he just didn’t have it in him.
The recent implosion of Jonny’s campaign, with firings, resignations, recriminations and nasty e-mails, was hardly a surprise. It’s the old story of rats abandoning a sinking ship, a ship that was taking on water even before it was launched. You knew Jonny was not ready for prime time when the campaign handed out press credentials with his named spelled wrong. What the H? It’s Jon, not John.
Misspelling a candidate’s name, by his own people, is the kind of embarrassing incompetence that is emblematic of a larger, systematic incompetence. (Whatever else he is—phony, shallow, mean-spirited—Mit is not incompetent. As soon as Mit dropped the second T from his name, you can be sure that his staff was on it right away, changing everything from campaign buttons to instructions to donors as to how to make out the million-dollar checks.)
From the start, the Huntsman campaign has been plagued by incompetence. In the wake of the recent implosion, Huntsman apologists have attempted to minimize the continuing blunders by pointing to the inevitable growing pains of any presidential campaign. Don’t blame Jonny, they argue, he got into the campaign late, and besides, he is a candidate of a different color, a nice man who refuses to play dirty.
Be that as it may, Jonny is running for president, and as Harry Truman was wont to say, the buck stops with the president. In a presidential campaign, the buck also stops with the candidate, and one has to say, in sadness, Huntsman is not Jonny on the spot. Jon Huntsman Jr. is a classic example of the Peter Principle, according to which a person rises to his level of incompetence.
The interesting thing about the Peter Principle is that it is entirely unpredictable. You can go from success to success, performing competently in every endeavor, until the day that you don’t. Before falling on his handsome face in his run for president, Jon Huntsman had gone from success to success, from the family business to the White House staff, from diplomatic achievement to gubernatorial accomplishment. (We’ll draw a discreet veil over his rock & roll years as a high school drop-out, which is actually, in my view, a positive.)
An instructive contrast to Jon Huntsman is Barack Obama, who was a successful and extremely competent presidential candidate, but who, alas, is thus far an unsuccessful and not-so-competent president. Granted, the deck was stacked against Obama, who inherited the full catastrophe of George W. Bush; nevertheless, Obama flunked his first chance to be a successful president by bending over for the bankers and failing to aggressively address the economic crisis.
It could be argued that history is the final judge of presidential competence, an argument famously advanced by the appallingly incompetent George W. Bush. Good ol’ W., by the way, is both a confirmation and an exception to the Peter Principle. He went from failure to failure, demonstrating his incompetence at every level. His only success was as an obnoxious drunk.
Getting back to Handsome Jonny, it’s striking how swift was his ascendance to incompetence. Excitement stirred in the hearts of nostalgic Republicans and even deluded Democrats, when he tossed his hat into the presidential ring. Now that his political prospects have dimmed to the vanishing point, it will be interesting to see where he goes and what he does. He will not, certainly, return to Utah. For good or ill, he has moved on from his native ground.
Will he venture forth into unknown seas? Or will he simply fade into his own parade and become the drum major of his soul?